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The Fitbit: A Social (Not Health) Device?


Author Peter Rubin discusses the ebb and flow of feedback devices, particularly the original Japanese pedometer, manpo-kei, and its American descendant, the Fitbit Tracker. During Japan’s industrial modernization in the 1960s, when convenience took precedence over healthy activity, the company Yamasa Tokei Keiki infused the East Asian idea of plenty into a device that would encourage a plentiful exercise regimen – the manpo-kei, which literally translates to “10,000 steps-meter.” This fad began in the United States when James Park and Eric Friedman introduced their own, westernized product, the Fitbit Tracker. The Fitbit embedded itself not only into the regimens of its users but also into their own social networks.

Rubin highlights the significance of social networks in the adoption of new technological products, specifically feedback devices. The difference in the introduction of two feedback devices in Japan versus in the United States underscores the specificity and exclusivity that social networks can have. Japan’s manpo-kei was marketable to the East Asian market because its conception was based on the traditional idea of plenty, man, or 10,000. Furthermore, the product was actively adopted once a Japanese medical researcher openly supported the device’s health benefits: Within the East Asian network, the researcher was a significant node who had an expansive influence due to his ethos as a health professional. Fitbit took hold in the United States once it was introduced by American entrepreneurs who had a stronger link to the U.S. market network. In addition, Rubin describes how such a trend can affect micro-level networks, when he shares the competition between himself and his acquaintances that occurred over the number of steps recorded on the Fitbit device. The competition would be so subtly fierce that Fitbit users, including Rubin himself, would fake their own step-counts. Interestingly, the Fitbit’s original purpose as a health tool was less important than as a social tool in propagating certain conceptions of an individual through the individual’s network.


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September 2018